Friday, May 29, 2009

A Camping We Will Go...

A few times a year we pack the Golf up to the ceiling with gear and head to the the MN Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association Festival.  I won't lie.  I'm in it for the s'mores, outdoor morning yoga and forced laziness more than the music.  But do I LOVE square dancing.  

Since it's a regular occurance, I've created an electronic list of things to pack.  Anyone else do this?  I can rest easy when I know that everything I need is on the list and as long as I pack this, I won't have forgotten anything.  Of course, every year the list gets a little longer...

We also have a file for the housesitter.  I also recommend creating this if you ever need to have someone take care of your house.  We include info about the animals' care, the plant watering, emergency contacts, etc.  And the best part is that it's ready to go at a moment's notice!

I love having a few special treats for the camping trip.  We generally eat pretty healthily while camping, but we also need some fun treats.  How did I not know that Liz Lovely makes gluten free vegan cookies?  I'm a big fan of the regular vegan cookies, but now my sweetie can eat them, too!  [Uh. Oh.  That means less for me...]

I got these at Fast and Furless, a super awesome vegan shop on Franklin Ave. in Minneapolis.
A recent perk at work was samples of this new product: Little single serving pouches of organic peanut butter and almond butter.  Normally I'd say, "What a waste of packaging!"  But for camping, these make perfect sense.  I plan on squeezing some straight into my mouth.  
Also from Fast and Furless are my favorite snack.  Mike and the kids have never even seen these because I always eat the entire box while driving home from Fast and Furless!  

I restrained myself to only 1/4 the box for the purposes of this trip, though.

Another camping staple is tofu jerky.  I loosely base my recipe on Sarah Kramer and Tanya Barnard's from How it All Vegan.  But really, I don't use any recipe.  I just dump tons of smoked paprika, cumin, black pepper, garlic, tamari, liquid smoke, maple syrup, and a smidge of balmasic vinegar on the tofu, marinate overnight, and then bake slowly until most of the moisture is gone.  Here it is, ready to be baked:
Pretty much the only time the kids will eat black pepper is on this tofu.  We all devour it.

I'll be back after this weekend.  Don't try to rob my house while I'm gone or my housesitter and vicious dog will slay you.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Garden

You've all been waiting in suspense, right?  Just dying to know how the garden turned out?  Well, here she is!

I'm really happy with the results.  I fit all of my transplants into the space and re-seeded the kale, beans, collards, radishes, beets, carrots, and basil.  All of the transplants survived the trauma!  

I barely survived, though.  I've never been so sore or exhausted!  But I felt pretty freakin' hardcore using the power drill by the time I was done.  

Here's one of the lovely heirloom tomatoes that is thriving in the lead-free soil.  I believe this variety is called "Box Car Willie".
I was thrilled to see the first ripening strawberry out in the berry patch today!  It won't be too long before we're bringing in tons of berries!  Okay, maybe not tons...

I just love strawberry flowers.  If it didn't mean killing potential strawberries, I think I'd pick these and put them in a vase.

The peonies are budding and getting ready to burst open.  All the ants are loving them!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Extreme Makeover: Garden Edition

Here's the story of my garden makeover, with no plastic surgery or bulldozers involved.

On Friday I took my last look at the garden as I've known it for the past 4 years.  It's admittedly taken some neglect over the past couple of weeks, as I finished my planting/seeding and then found out about the lead.  I shouldn't have taken my anger out on the plants, but I didn't water anything for a week.  I gave it the silent treatment.  Then I remembered how much I paid for the plants and resumed watering.

A good friend came over to help un-plant the garden.  Luckily I've been saving my yogurt containers for the day when Saint Paul starts recycling more than #1 and #2 bottle neck plastic bottles.  They make great pots for plants!  The seeded plants stayed behind because they were too fragile and it shouldn't take long for new seeds to pop up.  But the broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, parsley, dill, cilantro and probably some I'm forgetting are sitting in my garage right now in various states of thriving or dying.  Hopefully more of the former.

Then the serious manual labor started.  My garden had trenches dug between beds to form informal raised beds.  And huge heavy stones for the main path.  We discovered a massive ant colony when moving the stones.   

For the record, this is the only photo Mike took that didn't focus completely on my butt.  The camera saw the "St. Kate's" text on the shorts and wanted to focus right in.  Or at least that's what he told me.
The soil was delivered on Friday, too.  It's a 50/50 blend of topsoil and composted manure.  Some of the soil blends I looked at at garden centers were super dead looking.  This stuff is rich and light and black.  Big thanks to Kern Landscaping in Saint Paul for actually knowing where their dirt and manure come from (no one else could tell me!).  And for fitting the full 10 cu yds on one delivery.  I agonized over this decision and am totally happy with the soil quality.

Sorry neighbors!  I'll move it soon!

On Saturday afternoon Mike and I started by leveling the rest of the garden trenches and dumping our poor, unusable leaded compost onto the garden surface.  Then we covered the whole area in commercial grade landscaping fabric.  I'm not usually a fan of this stuff in gardens, but it will keep the leaded soil from blowing around and ending up back on my veggies' leaves.

Here's what the garden looked like at the end of the day.  I may have been a little ambitious in thinking that I'd be able to get all the beds built and filled in one day with my friends' help.  Just a little. 

I worked from 1pm until 8pm and was completely exhausted by the day's end.  My RSVPs petered out to 3 super awesome garden helpers, so the odds were against us to get everything done!  We got 3 beds built (so now 4 total are done) and filled 3 mostly with soil.  Mike even carted dirt after getting home from work at 10pm!  Trouble thinks this is a new racetrack area just for her.  

Here's a closer picture of the beds and the lone rhubarb plant that will keep its roots in the leaded soil.

And here's me- tired, a little sunburned and so sore I can barely walk.  After a hot shower, Dr. Hauschka arnica and birch body oil and 9 hours of sleep, I'm a little less sore and a lot less tired.  And I'm ready for Day 2!  

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Oh goodness.  I haven't posting anything since Saturday.  I'm sorry dear readers, but I've been busy.  And not busy laying around and eating ice cream either.  [Well, to be honest, I did eat a fair amount of ice cream last night after we discovered our freezer came unplugged at some point during the day.  But I HAD to eat it to save the ice cream.  Coconut milk ice cream should NOT be wasted].

I've been busy planning my garden and price comparing on lumber, soil, and landscaping fabric (Oh, yeah.  And working).  I knew this would be a lot of work, but this is ridiculous!  Mike has cut most of the lumber.  The soil/manure mixture will be delivered Friday.  The crew is coming on Saturday.  Today I finished with the purchases and moved on to the things I've been
 neglecting.  Like community ed. class proposals, cleaning up this messy house, taking a shower, putting away my winter clothes (it was over 90 degrees!) and finally, blogging.

You haven't missed much in the way of cooking because it's been a pretty standard diet of pasta and tofu, rice and tofu, rice and cabbage around here these days.  Oh, wait.  I did make some potato salad and pinto beans.  That's it for creativity, though. 

I just got finished with everything and cooked up some eggplant and home-canned tomatoes over quinoa a few minutes ago. 
 I used red chiles, cumin, and coriander to spice it up.  Yum!  I ended up adding some soy yogurt raita after my first helping because it needed a little something extra.  

I promise lots of garden-in-progress pictures soon!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Latest Dirt

Latest garden news:  Our second round of soil tests are back.  

The garden is confirmed to have high levels of lead (604 ppm in first test, 504 in second test).

The kids area and front yard are pretty safe (80 and 59 ppm, respectively).

The compost is not in good shape at 231 ppm.  

While I'm sad that it really is true that the garden is contaminated, I'm thrilled that the kids' area is not worse or as bad as the garden.  I've been pricing out various remediation strategies and mulching 1/2 of our property would be expensive!  

But it's really too bad that all that compost is filled with lead.  I suppose when you compost bits of soil and tons of plant matter from a leaded area, the compost is leaded, too.  We could still use it on flowers, I suppose.  But this also means that the rest of the unfinished compost (about 1/2 cubic yard) needs to go if we'll ever clean the lead out of our compost bin.  

Since it's just the garden we have to worry about, it should cost around $400 for the 12 cubic yards of soil/compost to fill seven 4' x 8' beds that are 18" tall (includes delivery fee).  The wood will cost about $220 if I can get it while Menard's is still having their sale this weekend.  

Then there's the landscaping fabric, straw mulch (cheapest), and lots of bolts, nuts, and washers.  
Last night I tried brainstorming ways to fundraise for the garden.  Except no one has any extra money right now, so that probably wouldn't work! I will be happy to take people's manual labor, though.  

We'll be building the beds and filling them with soil on Saturday, May 23.  I promised the kids we could go to this cool fossil digging thing in the morning, so we'll get started at around 1pm and work until we're done.  Fun!  

Email me if you want to come and aren't some crazy psycho killer who wants my address.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Garden Update

Thanks for all the sweet words about my garden, everyone!  I just found out today that my blood lead levels are normal (1 mcg/dL).  What a relief!  

We still need to get Mike and the kids tested, but at least we can be a little less nervous now.  I spend an awful lot of time with my hands in the dirt.  So if my levels are normal, chances are better that theirs are, too.  

We also still need to get the results back from our additional soil tests.  I measured the garden, kids' play area, front yard, and finished compost that we just harvested.  The U of MN might block my number if I call them again to see if the results are in yet.  

A few friends have offered to help build raised beds.  So I think I'm going to start planning a "Rebuild Liz's Garden" party.  I think I'll serve "garden party" food, like little cucumber sandwiches, iced tea, and some sort of delightful little cupcake or something [anyone remember garden party Barbie?] .  But first I have to figure out how I want the raised beds laid out... if I want to keep the fence up or take it down to make it easier to get in and out of the much soil, lumber, landscaping fabric, and mulch I need...etc.  Luckily, I love planning.

Anyone know how deep I need to make the raised beds to avoid plants digging their roots through the landscaping fabric and into the leaded soil?  2 feet?  Tomato roots go deep...
I have some research to do.

Thanks again for being so supportive.  And I think I could talk about this at work or at a party now without crying.  I've had some time to deal.  

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Dirt

I lost something really important to me yesterday.  I lost my garden, or at least my garden as I've known it for the past 4 years.  No one drove a bulldozer into my backyard or anything, it was much less dramatic than that.  

Since the first year at our house we've been amazed at the garden's soil quality.  Tomatoes grow as high as you can build a tomato cage.  Peppers produce more than a family of 4 can eat or freeze.  The kale keeps us full of iron all year.  And sure, we use organic gardening methods, enrich the soil with compost, rotate our crops, and mulch.  But we just considered ourselves lucky to have soil so black and rich, with worms filling every shovelful of dirt.  

This year I wanted to know just how good our soil was, so I sent a sample off to the University of MN to get it tested for the basics: pH level, organic matter, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. And I decided to test for lead.

The soil test form said only to test your soil for lead if you suspected it was contaminated.  I had no reason to suspect this and assumed this was something the city probably tested for anyways. But I wanted to check on it, just in case.

Well, yesterday the results came back with lead levels 6 times higher than the standard level set by the MN state legislature (which are lower than the EPA's levels) and 15% higher than the EPA's standard levels.  They recommend that soil with lead levels above 100 ppm not be used for gardening if there are children helping.  My garden level is 600 ppm.  

Here's a taste of what I'm feeling: Imagine your favorite activity.  Not just a hobby, but something you are passionate about.  Something that gets you in touch with your spirituality and makes you feel alive like nothing else on this earth.  Now imagine that everytime you've done that activity you've been poisoning your children, your partner and yourself.  

Yesterday I was sad and ashamed.  I cried for my garden and all the work we've put into it.  I cried for not knowing if the lead had already affected my family.  I cried for being naive enough to believe that in a polluted world I had my own little safe oasis.  

Today I'm mad.  Erin Brockovich mad.  I'm mad that I've never heard that you should test your soil for lead before even letting your kids play outside.  I'm mad that we've f***ed up our earth so much that people can't even grow food in their own yard without trucking in sterilized soil. I'm mad that either the city doesn't test for residential lead or they don't volunteer the information to the person who owns that land.  How many of you have tested your soil?  Do your kids play outside?  

In a way the garden is still a blessing.  Without it I never would have even considered testing our soil for lead. And hopefully it's not as bad throughout the whole yard as it is in the garden.  

So here are the next steps:
1.  Get blood tests for everyone in the family.
2.  Test other areas of the yard and re-test the garden.
3.  If we have elevated blood levels OR if the 2nd test shows the same level of lead, then we dig up the plants, cover the soil in heavy duty landscaping fabric, build raised beds, bring in clean soil, replant the plants.
4.  If the kids' play area is high, too, we'll cover that with fabric and thickly mulch the whole area. 
5.  We'll enforce strict hand scrubbing rules after playing outside,
 super-duper wash anything that comes in from outside and get serious about the "no shoes in the house" rule.  

Some slight good news is that plenty of plants don't absorb much lead.  And if you have high phosphorus levels, alkaline soil, and high organic matter levels you can further minimize the lead absorption (our soil has all of those).  The main concern is with direct contact with the soil, breathing in the dust, and getting it in your mouth via dirty food or not washing hands properly, though- Not necessarily the food itself.

It looks like a lot of changes are coming to our garden, our yard and our lives.  I feel like someone let all the air out of my hot-air balloon.  Deflated.  How do I tell the kids that they can't play in the dirt?  What kind of messed up message does it send to tell these nature-loving kids that we can't trust our own soil?  Ugh. 

Sorry for the biggest downer of a blog post.  Here's a sexy picture of Mike harvesting the finished compost:  A whole kiddie pool full!  (And notice Hannah in the foreground, waiting for 1/2 rotten apples to roll her way).  You can see a bit of our compost bin here.  It's built out of chicken wire and old pallets from the co-op.

***PS- Maybe don't bring this subject up with me at work or at a party, okay?  I'll probably start crying.  And you wouldn't want that.

Friday, May 8, 2009


In the world of easy breakfasts, a lassi is definitely in my top 10 favorites.  A lassi is an South Asian blended drink made from yogurt, water, spices, and/or fruits.  Like a yogurt smoothie, only thinner and it can be savory or sweet.  

Six reasons why a lassi is a rockin' good drink for everyone
1.  You don't need much fruit- Even a 1/2 a mango or a couple of berries is enough.

2.  Out of milk?  No problem.  Water is traditionally used in this smoothie.

3.  Avoiding sugar?  Use unsweetened yogurt and just a smidge of agave nectar or stevia to sweeten it.

4.  No time?  Ha.  A lassi takes about 30 seconds to make.

5.  Don't really like yogurt?  Tough.  It's good for you and tastes awesome.

6.  Can't use soy or dairy yogurt?  Use coconut milk yogurt!  Yum!

Mango lassis are a staple in this house, especially in the last few weeks when mangos have been amazing and on sale.  But the organic Mexico-grown strawberries have been usually sweet and flavorful for this time of year (and on sale), so I picked some up.  Here's how I like to use them:

Strawberry Rose Lassi

1/2 cup plain, unsweetened non-dairy yogurt (Wildwood plain is my fave)
4-5 de-stemmed strawberries
1 cup unsweetened almond milk or water
1 tsp. rose water
a drizzle of agave nectar

Blend.  Taste.  Adjust rose water or agave nectar if needed.  A pinch of cardamom is super good in here, too!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Chili dogs!!!

Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Namaste Cafe

Coconut Spinach Curry!
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First Food from the Garden '09!

I'm not really sure how I survive all Winter without gardening.  There's something about being outside, dirt caked under my fingernails and smeared up my legs, that makes me feel alive.  I'm not sure if it's the actual act of planting, watering, and growing food or just the fact that I'm outside touching the Earth that makes me feel this way.  

And, really, it doesn't matter why it makes me feel so awesome.  But if you want, you can pick apart the dirt and analyze why it makes people happy...

Those of you familiar with the Minnesota growing season may wonder what the heck I'm already harvesting from my garden when it was 40 degrees just a few days ago.  Well, it's actually not food I planted.

When we moved into this house there was a empty spot next to the garage covered in large pavers and surrounded by stinging nettles.  After stinging myself silly and breaking my weed whacker, I resorted to guerilla weeding techniques to remove them.  [Maybe gardening makes me feel better because I can take out any aggression on weeds?]  A machete would have come in handy.  

Now that nettle patch is filled with raspberries, blackberries and strawberries slowly waking up after the Winter.  The nettles are nothing like they once were, but you can never really get rid of nettles.  

Honestly, though, I don't really want to get rid of ALL of them.  

They're the first thing up in the spring, filled with iron, calcium, and vitamin K, and can help treat allergies.  Sure, they hurt a little when you pick them.  But the good outweighs the bad, especially when you pick them when they're young and not as stingy.  

Once you have a basketful of young, tender nettle leaves, just wash and dry them.  Heat some Earth Balance in a small saucepan and toss in some garlic scapes (just chop off a few tops of your garlic plants) and the nettles.  About 10 seconds later, they're done.  Still bright green and wilted to about 1/118 of their original size.
These are amazingly delicious.  Rich and buttery from the Earth Balance and fresh and spinachy-tasting like Spring should be.  So go out to your yard right now and do a little weeding.

Question for you cat lovers:

Has anyone else seen a cat that stretches out completely on its belly like Trouble cat?  It looks like her legs are broken, but she just stretches out like this all the time!